Why is higher education SO bad?

Picture of a white cat - and not the prettiest one.
HE is a long way from the lion it could be…

This is NOT a Golden Age

I often wonder how commonly held the myth of a certain kind of higher education is – of tweed-jacketed dons in lifelong jobs, with iron-plated pensions, spending lots of time with happy, engaged students, teaching with passion, with space for slow, thoughtful scholarship. Whether this ‘Golden Age’ of universities ever existed – and it almost certainly didn’t – it’s clear that we’re currently a very, very long way from this.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, and I do have a tweed jacket – two in fact – although I’m trying to grow out of them (metaphorically speaking). I’m permanently employed and can work from home relatively easily, which at the current point in time I know is a massive luxury. I love teaching and research, there is endless scope for intellectual growth, and have some great friends and colleagues. If luck and elbow grease align, there is a long-term, upward career path for me. But it’s not all rosy, there are squeezes and frictions, and around me I see a university system which is terrible for a lot of people – both staff and students.

Social Mess, Financial Catastrophe

Socially, higher education is a mess. If you’re wealthy, straight, white, male, able, and did well enough at school, then life at uni – and probably at a so-called ‘top’ uni – is probably a blast. There will be ups and downs, and the work will be challenging at times, but in the grand scheme of things, it’ll likely be fun. You’ll be safe in the knowledge that Ma and Pa will bail you out if things get fiscally wobbly, and you’ll be blissfully insulated from discrimination. You might find your privilege checked a few times, but that would be a knock to the ego rather than a genuine pain.

If, on the other hand, you’re a long way from wealthy-straight-white-able-male, it could be a lot less fun. Part time or even full time work in addition to your studies, alongside the sense of being an outsider, unwelcome, not clever enough (which won’t be true), would weigh heavy. There is mental health and other support, but it’s stretched thin and doesn’t counterbalance the fact that the system is stacked against you. The same goes for the progression into academia – less PhD places and far less doctoral funding outside the (predominantly white, middle class) higher status universities. Then the academic job market is rough (and particularly so now): most people will face years of precarious contracts, and some will carry the added burden of multiple discriminations along the way.

Financially, the system is a catastrophe. Students are accumulating huge debts, much of which they won’t be able to pay off (so the state carries the can) but there’s nonetheless the weight of 30 years of scary statements and wage slip subtractions. The current loans and fees system costs more to the government than the previous system did, but much of it is fudged in clever accounting and passed on to the never-never. Salaries, for those that can get permanent positions, are good but dwindling against the rate of inflation, and even before Covid blitzed the financial markets, the pension situation was looking increasingly grim.

Why is so much SO bad in higher education?

It’s a constant source of frustration – and weariness – that huge amounts of positive energy in universities is directed towards understanding the world’s problems and devising solutions to them, but the very places where that work is done are seemingly unable to put it into practice. Yes, universities are large, slow-moving beasts, and there’s an appropriateness in not rushing through changes without deliberation and due process. And there is progress towards widening access, better support, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and so on. But it is desperately slow, far too slow. It could be a million times better.

Part of the problem (and the solution, of course) is people. Universities are located within, and not insulated from, societies in which burning injustices and abuses prevail. They are no ivory tower in that sense, or in any other. The idea that academics are separate from society ignores the fact that they live in the world, have and lose friends and loved ones, do ‘stuff’, read the papers, vote, eat, shop, and so on. The bigger issue seems to be that universities can’t change. People are crap, knowingly and/or unknowingly, and we’ve screwed it up. While the will for change does exist in many places, the thing simply won’t budge.

Needed: Time, Diversity, Cultural Change – and Cash

This inertia operates on several counts. The first is an issue of time: universities are wound up so tight, are so over-optimised in terms of workloads and the production of lessons, papers, grant applications, that there is simply too little slack in the system to amply address what are deep-rooted problems. To rewrite an individual ten-week course to be more inclusive in terms of broader content, more collaborative teaching styles, and variable assessments, would take weeks. The bureaucracy to then reapprove it would take longer so people are left, where they can, to making microchanges within existing course descriptions. People don’t have the time because universities can’t – won’t – give it to them.

Secondly, that universities are so homogeneous means that the people who highlight problems struggle to be listened to because colleagues can’t see it, and/or they don’t have the time or head space to think/do anything about it. There really is no area of higher education which is unproblematic: if you examine a university’s entire modus operandi, such as its admission and promotion systems, its teaching and support services, its physical infrastructure and management practices, there are gremlins throughout the system. The scale of the job is simply staggering. It’s probably a decade or more of work, and that’s without keeping the whole thing running while you’re making those changes.

That there is so much to do is, thirdly, a recurring cultural problem. How we do things is inherited. They’ve developed over time, they sort of work, and a great many problems we don’t notice. So much of a university’s life course is written into formal guidelines and processes or forms, and informal, internalised practices. We can’t simply stop, so we end up reproducing those problems. We also have to play the game to stay in our jobs, climb the ladder, teach, advise, present, get funding, publish, and this means that we benefit from and maintain those broken practices. You can’t change it from the outside, but in some ways you can’t change it from the inside, either.

Finally, universities can’t afford to change. Literally. Something the pandemic has exposed in the UK is that many universities, after decades of policies forcing them to compete for a limited pot of funding and status, are financially precarious. Many have borrowed deep and outsourced services to beautify their campuses and facilities to attract students and funding. This means that they couldn’t take on more staff to alleviate workload issues even if they wanted to. Staff work hundreds of hours over and above their contracts, ostensibly for free but the university model is an insatiable beast. It always wants more savings, better results, more funding, more students, but with the same – or preferably less – people. We can see how students were lured to campuses for face to face teaching because the universities needed the fees and accommodation money. The result is that students are stuck and suffering while staff are having to cope with the fallout, often at short notice.

It MUST be better

Regular readers – if there are any, other than my mum – will know that I genuinely love so much about universities. They’ll never be the promised land, but they should be decent places to be part of – as should all sectors; higher education is no more deserving of this than any other field. But that HE is not far better is a cause of constant pain to me, and is a crushing agony to many. The human cost of this system, even without Covid, is unfathomable. For all of the staff who are exhausted, denigrated, and spat out of the system, there is a desperate army of freshly minted PhD graduates and post-docs who want to escape unstable working conditions for the relative safety of a permanent job. Fresh (cheaper) meat. Potential students have few or no other options, and they can’t afford to drop out because they have the debts to pay off anyway, so their best option appears to be to push through and hope that it all pans out.

I so wish it were different. It must become different.

Posted in Access to Uni, Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates, Rankings, Student Loans, Teaching in HE, Tuition Fees | 1 Comment

Teaching Materials – Catalogue

This is the list of my teaching materials. Many of them have full explanatory notes, and I’ve dated them all so you can see how current they are. It’s not that they will be out of date as such, but some of the topical examples might have been superceded. If you’re interested in seeing/talking about any of them, let me know. (r.budd@lancaster.ac.uk)

Undergrad Year 1

Sociology of Education

Key Questions in Sociology of Education (2018) LECTURE

Education, Inequality, Social Mobility (2018) LECTURE

Sociological Research in Education (2018) LECTURE

Education is Embedded in Society/-ies (2018) LECTURE

Education Policy

What is Policy? An Introduction (2018) LECTURE

Thinking about Education Policy (2018) TUTORIAL

Policy ‘Receivers’ (2018) LECTURE

Discussion: Peters’ Advanced Introduction to Public Policy (2018) SEMINAR

Discussion: Bochel and Daly in Education Policy (2018) SEMINAR

Debate Preparation: ‘Education policies are implemented by educators/administrators exactly as planned by politicians.’ (2020) TUTORIAL

Free School Meals (2018) SEMINAR

School in Korea and PISA (2018) TUTORIAL

The Logics of Economy and Education (2018) LECTURE

Global Knowledge Economy (2018) LECTURE

Tuition Fees (2018) TUTORIAL

Positive Discrimination and Contextual Admissions (2019) SEMINAR

Gypsy, Roma and Travellers and Education (2019) TUTORIAL

Social Justice

Marketisation, Privatisation, and Social Justice (2019) LECTURE

Are students customers? If so, what are teachers? (2019) LECTURE

Marketisation and Privatisation in Education (2019) SEMINAR

Competition, Competition, Competition (2019) TUTORIAL

Undergraduate Year 3

Dissertation

From Aims to Methods to Research Questions (2018) SHORT LECTURE

Your Literature Review (2018) SHORT LECTURE

Research Ethics (2018) SHORT LECTURE

Interview/Focus Group Design (2018) SHORT LECTURE

Interview/Focus Group Analysis (2018) WORKSHOP

Writing Up (2019) SHORT LECTURE

Postgraduate

Policy

Neoliberalism et al (2017) SEMINAR

Education Policy (2018) SEMINAR

Policy Actors, Entrepreneurs, and Transfer (2017) SEMINAR

Advanced Qualitative Analysis (2018) WORKSHOP

Researching Learning, Teaching, Assessment

Researching Learning, Teaching and Assessment (2020) SEMINAR

Social Practice Theory and Learning, Teaching, Assessment (2020) SEMINAR

Activity Theory and Learning, Teaching, Assessment (2020) SEMINAR

Introduction to Critical Pedagogy (2020) SEMINAR

Researching Critical Pedagogy (2020) SEMINAR

Introduction to Decolonising (2020) SEMINAR

Decolonising and Critical Pedagogy (2020) SEMINAR

The Thesis/On Research

Dissertation: Interview and Focus Groups (2018) LECTURE

Knowledge Paradigms and Research (2020) SEMINAR

Structuring Your Thesis (2020) SEMINAR

Academic Careers

Public Engagement (2018) WORKSHOP

Planning your academic career/s (2018) WORKSHOP

Academic Writing

Introduction to writing academically (2020) GUIDE

Posted in Early Career Academia, Employability, Globalisation, PhDs/Doctorates, Rankings, Teaching in HE, Tuition Fees | Leave a comment

Have we reached ‘peak international students’ in the UK?

 

IMG_0845

Will our students be long-term empty of international visitors?

 

Universities’ Precarity

The current HE context has made it very clear that, while not all of their eggs are in one basket, a lot of universities’ financial position has been based on a heavy recruitment of international students. This has been part of a government strategy of funding less, in that the (exorbitant) international fees shore up losses elsewhere on overheads and administration, research and teaching. At the same time, a lot of universities have clearly overcommitted themselves by borrowing heavily against projected fee income in order to beautify/enlarge their campuses to attract more students.

Covid-19 and the International Student ‘Crash’

Covid and its attendant travel restrictions raise the very real risk that, in the first instance, international student numbers are likely to shrink dramatically for the 2020-21 academic year. This hits some universities harder than others; a casual glance shows that the ‘top’ universities recruit around a third of their student body from overseas. Even if they replace those ’empty seats’ with domestic students, their fee income will take a major hit because of the difference in fees.

We also have to ask where those ‘replacement’ domestic students will come from. It could be that they’re ‘poached’ from lower ranked universities – which, it should be remembered, aren’t any worse, in practice – leaving the less high status places to suffer. It would be unsurprising if this were to happen, there sadly seems to be little inter-organisational sympathy in UK HE. This could be a hammer blow for some but it would be an accident of inequality, history, and poor policy, not a sign of organisational failure. The government might like this option as it sharpens the sense that higher education is a market, but the impact on those students, staff, and the local area, would be disastrous.

It’s worth asking, too, where in the degree structure the pain will be felt the most. If we assume (and right now, it’s a big assumption) that most students will be distance learning until Christmas, this could hit Master’s applications – often a cash cow for universities – the hardest. Given that international students in part want to experience the host country, would they be willing to pay over the odds for three months of online teaching and then six months living overseas? It seems unlikely. Those looking at – or in the middle of – a longer course might be likely to stay the course.

Economic and Environmental Issues

We must assume, too, that the broader economic fallout from Covid will have an impact on the capacity for international students to pay for their overseas studies. Earnings and employment will take a hit, either for self-funding learners or for the parents of those who are supporting their offspring. We have seen this in the past; the 1997 Asian stock market crash impacted international student mobility and led to an increase in transnational education (TNE) where Western universities operate overseas campuses or have their courses taught by overseas providers – it’s the same degree, without the travel/cost, at least in principle.

Also, there’s an ongoing discussion as to the enormous carbon footprint of academic conferences but – and maybe I’m looking in the wrong places – there doesn’t seem to be as much thought given to the environmental impact of overseas study. The transport emissions of <checks notes> 340,000 international students travelling home, say twice a year – if they can afford it – must be huge. Could a greater awareness of environmental issues encourage international students to travel less? Might governments and universities also want to think carefully about this and act accordingly?

To some extent the powers that be seem more interested in the bottom line of the international student market than anything; it makes too much financial sense. What is far more important, though, (to me anyway) is that diverse university campuses can be enriching. It isn’t always, though, not least for international students who are not properly included in university life, or for staff or domestic students who miss out on getting to know them. It’s complicated; we need them financially (if only that weren’t the case) but we also want them intellectually and socially.

A Permanent Downhill Trajectory?

Have we therefore seen the peak of international students in the UK? Not only are the travel restrictions in place now, but people’s will and ability to travel, and travel far, may have weakened, perhaps permanently. How we look internationally in cost and political (as well as Covid) terms must also an issue – other countries are developing their international offer and potentially look more attractive on all counts. TNE might see major growth as it’s closer to home, but still an overseas degree, and often quite a bit cheaper in terms of fees and living costs – it has a smaller carbon footprint, too. Either way, something is going to give when it comes to student numbers; hopefully it isn’t staff jobs or student support and teaching.

 

 

Posted in Globalisation, International Students, Rankings, Tuition Fees | Leave a comment

Whiteness and the Academy

White

The boy is all white…

Let’s start with the observation that I’m ridiculously white. The everyday response to this is to look at me and say, “duh, obviously!”. But people who think about/study race might look at me and say, “duh, obviously!” but mean it differently. The distinction between the two is that one is about skin colour, the other is about culture, and I’m white on both counts. They do overlap, but not always.

This discussion sits inside the observation that the world, at least the Western world, is socially designed by and for white, male, straight, able, middle-class men. You can see this because, if you’re all of those things, there are few to no additional barriers to your progress through education, to jobs and a ‘normal’ life, a life more likely free of discrimination, poor health, a criminal record, verbal abuse, physical assault. If you swap out any single element about that identity, such as race, or gender, or class, or disability, or sexual preference, barriers immediately appear – life gets harder. If you change more than one element, the barriers multiply, they rise up and combine in different ways depending on who and where you are. This creates complex and varied inequalities that are very difficult to escape and overcome. I acknowledge them all, but the focus here is on race.

White

Being white skinned (or off-white/pink/whatever) comes with immediate advantages, not least because it puts you in a majority in ‘the West’. You don’t stand out, nobody does a double take or stares when you enter a room, a class, or a shop. Nobody tightens the hold on their bag when you sit down next to them on a train, asks you where you’re from, where you’re really from, says that they’ve been to ‘your’ country or like ‘your’ food, rolls out a few words in ‘your’ language. Your presence is never questioned, it doesn’t cross people’s minds whether you should be there or not. You’re less likely to be stopped by the police, spat at, shouted at, physically attacked, given a hard time at immigration, have your point of view ignored – particularly if you say something about racial inequality. In short, if you’re white you belong, and this means you simply have less weight to carry because you rarely have to worry about any of that stuff, not on a daily, repeated, and systematic basis.

Whiteness

Whiteness in a cultural sense is really hard to talk about, partly because it’s really hard to see. This is the point, it’s so in-built and taken for granted that many people don’t know it’s there – it simply is. In a way it’s most obvious by looking at what’s considered not to be ‘normal’, where the lines of exclusion or difference are drawn, where certain (kinds of) people or behaviour, or ways of thinking, are held to be lesser.

It’s visible in the sense that classical music and ballet (i.e white, European) are the highest forms, that fine art (white, European) is more expensive/superior, that prestigious awards in literature and science are invariably awarded by and to people of white, European descent. We can see it in the long list of mostly white actors, authors, newsreaders, journalists, politicians, judges (etc), and that it’s completely ‘natural’ for white (male) Westerners to pronounce on, or intervene in, issues in the non-Western world. White saviours, because ‘they’ (foreign people of colour) can’t understand or solve their own problems as well as we can. We see it in portraits, history books, in the news, and yes, in statues. Who is celebrated, who do we learn about, who is more likely to be successful, and how is success measured? All of this implicitly says that white is best, more natural, more normal. ‘Civilisation’ is European – which means that non-European is less so.

It’s also present in everyday practices. If we say ‘calm down, be rational’, we’re projecting the (culturally white) notion that thinking without emotion, balancing objective facts, is better. This is not to say that it’s not a good way of thinking, but it’s asserting that it’s the best way, that other ways lead to poorer decisions. But if someone is hurt, angry, or excited, there are reasons for this and we can’t (and shouldn’t) extract those reasons from how we think about the situation. They’re important: feelings matter, and there’s no such thing as objective anyway.  This question of ‘calmness’ also connects to the ubiquitous trope that people of colour (and particularly Black people) are not calm and controlled – not reasonable, like white people – but violent, chaotic, hyper-sexual, uncontrolled. More animal, less human. It’s hideous, but it’s everywhere – you don’t have to look far in the media or social media to find it.

How do we respond, either internally or externally, to a person of colour raising issues of racial discrimination? If we automatically reach for excuses, that is whiteness making its presence felt. If we engage in ‘whataboutery’, asking what about gender, social class, or disability, that’s whiteness. Yes, these dimensions matter, but constantly evoking them to deflect from engaging with questions of race implies that race matters less, or doesn’t matter at all. That’s whiteness. What about people of colour who are successful, don’t they show that equal opportunity exists? No, they don’t. Exceptions don’t make the rule, the system is stacked against them so they’d have had to be both lucky and work way harder than their white peers to get to the same place. The vast majority have no chance of getting there at all. This is the power of whiteness, holding some people back for the benefit of others. If we think that someone is ‘pulling the race card’ to scare people into making unfair allowances, or that they’re being oversensitive, that’s our whiteness. If you face a lifetime of discrimination, you know what it looks like. If you’re white, you’re far less likely to.

If you say ‘you don’t see race’, or that you treat everyone equally, great. But the world doesn’t. We have to see race, we have to know that the way the world is constructed marginalises people of colour, we have to recognise how it works, and we need to do something about it.

Whiteness in (Higher) Education

How does whiteness feature in universities? Sorry it took so long to get here, but I think that the explanations were necessary.

Black people are less likely to go to high status universities. This is partly due to the fact that they’re less likely to get the grades because they’re discriminated against by the education system as a whole as well as by teachers, and they don’t see themselves in the curriculum. They look at posh, white universities and think they’ll feel out of place. (They almost certainly will.) They’re more likely to drop out and less likely to score well if they do complete the course because they’re discriminated against by their peers and staff, again through the curriculum, with insufficient support and understanding about the issues they face because universities are majority white – in colour and culture. If they’re not at high status universities, they’re less likely to get into PhDs, have a tiny likelihood of getting funding for their doctorates, and this means that Black – and some South Asian – students in particular are stealthily and systematically funnelled away from entering academia.

If they do ‘make it’, against the odds, the white walls built by the system continue to repress them. They are likely to be teaching materials that ignore issues of race, surrounded by white colleagues and students who may be cluelessly or intentionally discriminatory. They may be expected to ‘represent’ racial minorities whether they want to or not. This can be both emotionally painful and poorly rewarded, reducing their capacity to do the other things that get them promoted through the system and into professorships. This lack of progression – if they can get permanent jobs, which they often can’t – is hampered by a publication and funding system that is weighted towards the scientific model, the rational, objective way of thinking that sees generalisation and statistics as the best kind of knowledge. It’s not to say that people of colour shouldn’t or can’t ‘do science’, but it’s important to note that the scientific method and knowledge are not ‘clean’ or culture-free. They have their uses but are not the only or best way to think, and there is a long history of racism from the (white) founding fathers of many subjects across the disciplinary spectrum. That legacy is still felt today in what is taught and assessed, how research is done, how universities work. Let’s also acknowledge that high status universities in the West often have strong connections to slavery, and the rankings that mark them out as high status, globally, follow that flawed, white ‘objective’ logic and actively promote the white, Western model as best.

As in the social world, the way whiteness works in higher education is to encourage (i.e. force) conformity into particular ways of behaving, talking, working – of being. If you don’t play the white game the right way, you’re punished, excluded, not admitted, not promoted. It’s not so much about out-and-out racism, although that’s there, too, it’s as  much about what’s hiding in plain sight. I began this blog by admitting to being white and white. In colour, certainly. In culture, too, a product of a white society, privileged, and more or less oblivious of that privilege and whiteness for a long time. But I’m a work in progress, trying to work out how and where I can make changes to myself, to my practices, to the system around me. I’m pretty new to this, not yet comfortable with articulating how it functions, and so many people are way ahead of me in their thinking and doing. But if we shy away from recognising these issues, and from talking about them because it’s uncomfortable or that we feel clumsy with it, nothing changes. And whiteness wins.

 

Posted in Early Career Academia, Employability, PhDs/Doctorates, Rankings, Teaching in HE | Leave a comment

The Great University Covid Regression?

Crossroads

Universities are at a crossroads – are they about to go the wrong way?

The UK, Late April 2020

‘Pre-covid’ life in the UK almost feels like an aeon ago, but we’re only six weeks into it. At the end of February I was in London, co-hosting an event with colleagues, and was still recruiting and interviewing participants for my research project in mid-March. How things have changed. On the 20th of March the schools closed and the government-ordered lockdown followed a few days later. For most of us, our worlds suddenly shrank. Covid is a catastrophe on just about every level. As of today, 165,000 people in the UK have been infected (but without widespread testing this figure is likely to be higher) and over 26,000 people have died. Up to 8 million private sector workers may be unable to workunemployment is rising, the health service is struggling, and the economy is tanking. It’s terrible news for just about everyone, and I’m worried that this context is the setting for a regression around many of the persistent problems in higher education.

The Pre-covid (Recent) Past

Where was higher education in the middle of March, before the pandemic and its effects really took hold? Overall, in a pretty bad place.

Socially, universities had – have – a mountain to climb. Inequalities in terms of access to higher education, particularly at the so-called ‘top’ unis, is an ongoing problem. There is evidence of endemic racism, sexism, ableism, and snobbery, throughout the sector – as there is in other industries. Students of colour, from working class or disadvantaged backgrounds, identifying as LGBTQI+, and/or with a disability, are less likely to enjoy their time at university, more likely to drop out or get lower grades, and won’t do as well on the job market if they do graduate. This is as true (if not more so) on the academic job market, with limited, unequal, and treacherous pathways through postgraduate study/PhDs and the early career stages. It’s a paradox that universities do cutting edge work in understanding and addressing social inequalities but they’re incredibly sluggish when it comes to making practical progress in them.

The middle of March also saw the end of a second round of strike action over pensions, precarious jobs, pay, and pay gaps. On the pension front, the pension fund managers are looking to increase contributions and reduce final pensions, which has been resisted around fundamental disagreements on the value – and therefore health and sustainability – of the pension fund itself. Pay hasn’t kept up with inflation and the pay differentials between genders and ethnic groups (which shouldn’t exist at all) are shockingly wide. Workloads are excessive, leading to widespread mental health problems for staff. Alongside that, universities have bought into a model of fixed term, limited (and zero) hours contracts for a lot of the complex work that goes on in the sector, making career prospects and stability – and paying bills – a pressing problem for thousands of academics and other higher education staff.

Alongside all of this, status hierarchies – which relate to research funding allocations and student recruitment – and are unjustifiably pronounced. Rankings and other measures of ‘excellence’ (the most overused and meaningless word in the sector) reproduce and magnify these hierarchies. Competition between universities is so intense that there seems to be little to no sense of solidarity at the inter-organisational level, rather clusters of similar universities pitted against each other while the oldest and wealthiest retain an excessive dominance. Underpinning this is a financial model which loads huge government-backed debts onto students, a large proportion of which can’t be paid back. Many universities have borrowed heavily to invest in refurbishments and new buildings to attract fee-paying students, too. Let’s not forget Brexit, either, which is likely to lead to reductions in our ability to attract international staff, students and EU grant funding.

And now enter Covid, stage right.

The Covid Present

The most obvious effect on universities has been a pretty much overnight emptying of campuses, sites that are ordinarily populated by thousands of people, many of whom live there. They must be deserted now, apart a skeleton staff and a small number of solitary students who are unable or unwilling to return home, or don’t have a home to return to. For international students, far from their support networks and with no foreseeable prospect of returning to them, it must be incredibly difficult. All taught classes, assessments and exams, most practical/lab work, and the endless array of meetings, conferences and other events, have either been moved online or cancelled.

This migration of resources, and the effort involved in doing this, is a story in itself. I work in a department which conducts most of its teaching online, but at short notice a week’s residential of intense teaching had to be rapidly converted into recorded sessions, webinars, discussion fora, and so on. For the teaching and support staff, it was some undertaking. For colleagues who are involved in providing/supporting predominantly face to face teaching, it’s a monumental task. What we’re currently doing is a stop-gap, adapting in-class teaching to online provision, which is very different from pre-planned distance learning. One silver lining here is that disability groups have long campaigned for more accessible and online provision, which many universities have hitherto resisted. It’s amazing what they can do when they’re forced to. There are also question marks about ed-tech companies doing very well as they profit from both selling online platforms and the data their usage generates – it’s a murky business, both pedagogically and morally. Beyond that, underpinned by the stress of covid-related worry and full-time childcare, all of the regular bureaucratic business of universities continues: the planning and strategising, interim problem solving, maintaining relationships, dealing with changes in government policy, collaborative grant writing and bid submission, as well as setting up contingency plans around covid.

The Post-covid HE Future?

There is an ongoing discussion about how/whether the pandemic will force us to do a social reset for the better. Our renewed appreciation for the long-underfunded public services, precarious care and agriculture workers, underpaid and overworked teachers, and so on, could – should – result in a rebalancing of our priorities. More money for the people and things that are really important, and with less travel, too. I’d absolutely love to see these things happen, but they won’t, they can’t. The levers of power sit so snugly in the hands of wealthy self-interest that we’ll see an approximation of business as usual, or maybe something worse as changes are brought about under the guise of post-covid economic woes.

How about in universities? Could we see a dialling back of financial imperatives, a re-prioritising of higher education as stable, collegial, better-paid, less lean and micromanaged, and less cut-throat? I doubt it, these things seem hard-wired into the ethos, and universities’ most pressing concern is going to be balancing the books. Other than providing furlough support, the government doesn’t seem interested in propping the universities up; the irony here is that while many universities have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into competitive market conditions, those conditions were forced on them by the state. University leaderships have partly dug their own hole, but the government has certainly given them the shovel. For those institutions who have been sailing close to the financial wind, this is very much squeaky bum time, if not bust time. Loans for new buildings still need to be serviced, and many of those loans will have been taken out against optimistically projected student numbers. Face to face teaching may resume in September or perhaps in January, but we have no idea what student numbers will look like.

International student numbers are likely to be plummet as people are less willing to travel to post-covid (and post-Brexit) Britain. Poor economic conditions elsewhere may make studying abroad too expensive, and others could be nervous about being stuck overseas if we see a renewed, or a different, pandemic. The higher status universities rely heavily on international students, not least because they’re more able to attract them due to their ranking positions – and non-EU students pay at least double for the same education at domestic students. The loss of that income might be partially recovered by attracting more UK students, in which case the lower-ranked universities will take a huge hit. (N.B. There is no evidence that the education at a high status university is better; it may actually be worse.) I’m assuming here that domestic students will still want to study – with the economy and job market in tatters, it’s probably a more attractive proposition.

The academic job market is already slowing down as universities implement hiring freezes. They are also shedding/not renewing fixed term and hourly-paid positions. The ‘benefit’ of these contracts is that the university has no long-term responsibility for them, but it’s a terrible model for most of those staff. State funding for research is likely to be reduced, too. The majority of this is already guzzled up by relatively few universities, and the pickings will be even leaner for the rest. Overall, this will mean less associated research positions, and less buy-out for permanent staff to hire adjunct academics while they’re doing research. What is already a difficult situation for early career academics will get worse, leaving what could be several cohorts of PhD graduates without a way into academic careers. Maintaining online teaching and other work, as well as resuming face-to-face activities as and when it happens, will therefore fall on fewer, already overworked staff under the auspices of ‘difficult decisions’ and ‘challenging times’. The pension fund is no doubt going to be in terrible shape, too, as the global stock markets are volatile and losing value. This provides firmer grounds for changing the terms and conditions for the worse.

These are the obvious things. Below the surface, there is also a real risk of losing ground in the social justice stakes. For universities, ‘essential’ will mean income-generating as they desperately try to cut costs, sustain themselves, and continue paying those loans. The students’ experience will deteriorate as less staff do more with bigger class sizes, allowing less time for close-quarters teaching and interaction. Support services may also be scaled back – study skills, mental health support, student societies and facilities, decolonising and other inclusion initiatives, and so on. As a result, the long-running inequalities for marginalised students in terms of entry, engagement, and outcomes, will either stagnate or deteriorate. For staff, too, we may see less action around changing cultures in terms of bullying and harassment, pay gaps, and promotion differentials. We’re already seeing a fall in journal submissions by women as they carry more of the domestic/child care work under lockdown; I suspect grant applications will go the same way. Unless this is accounted for, promotions and senior positions will continue to favour the same – and perhaps more – white, middle class men as in generations past.

The future is not bright, and this could be a long, slow dark spot for both wider society and for universities. Universities aren’t deserving of special treatment, but without a change in government and sectoral logics, the road ahead does not look good at all. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I’m filled with dread for the next few years in HE as a whole.

Posted in Access to Uni, Early Career Academia, Employability, International Students, Rankings, Student Loans, Teaching in HE, Tuition Fees | 2 Comments

The Kingmaker

Oxford University Buildings

Oxford University: Number 1 in the Universe?

Dave was waiting with the wings, collecting his thoughts before announcing the results of his 2070 intergalactic university rankings (IUR). There were over a thousand people here, university leaders and their assorted acolytes, press, and sundry hangers-on. The launch events were sold out years in advance. Tickets cost an arm and a leg, even though it was livestreamed, but they just couldn’t help themselves. The glitz and glamour, fancy food, seeing and being seen, rubbing shoulders and greasing palms, congratulating each other (and themselves) on being in the intergalactic top 500. Priceless.

That the rankings only included universities on planet earth was a moot point – it was all in the brand. As he often joked (and this always drew a laugh) universities in other galaxies seemed reluctant to submit their data; maybe they were scared off by the stiff competition. Global rankings had needed bit of a rebrand, so they’d done some tweaks around the edges, enlisted the help of few of the more eminent universities, pumped it hard through the media, and job done. Oxford was now the best university in the universe, year on year.

The IUR annual accounts had been circulated recently, and Dave mused over the headline figures in his mind. It was nothing but good news, and their shares would leap yet again when they were announced next week. Kerching! The profit margins from this week’s launch events were reason enough to run the rankings, but they were just the icing on the cake. Advertising space pulled in hefty slew of readies, too, but it was the consulting that really paid the bills, teaching universities how to play the IUR game.

VCs had to pay a mint for the inside track and tailored guidance on how to massage and manipulate their own data (and staff and students) to improve their chances of scoring well. It required them to open up their internal systems, but not doing so ran the risk of plummeting from one year to the next – a fate worse than death for an upwardly mobile university. It was no secret that this also allowed IUR to develop a fantastically exploitable database that publishers, governments, and software providers paid handsomely for. What was a secret was that they tweaked the rankings formula every year to keep Oxford top while sacrificing a few others to create the illusion of change.

Rankings really were money for old rope. When they’d started out, it had been a bit of fun, a sideshow to drum up interest. They’d been peddling something that nobody needed, but with a little persistence (and no little advertising), they’d eventually become what some people couldn’t live without. The criticisms still circulated: the measures were proxies, they presented a limited view of a university, they reinforced national and international (or rather intergalactic, lol) inequalities, led universities to alter focus, and undermined the social contributions of higher education. All true, but that horse had bolted long ago.

The public university was ancient history now; higher education was an oligarchy. Research was now only conducted in ten percent of universities worldwide, and they had a monopoly on degrees in the humanities, too. It had taken a while, but they’d essentially throttled the rest dead. This was a global story – only fifteen top 500 universities in the whole world outside world’s wealthiest twenty countries. The rest only taught now, and then merely apprentice level courses with local employers. The minnows would never catch up, they couldn’t compete on graduate salaries, citations, research income. Dog had eaten dog.

Dave got a tap on his shoulder. It was T minus 30. He took a deep breath and practiced his smile to see if it was still working. He could hear the chink of glasses, over-loud laughter, and what were predominantly men’s voices. University leadership, as ever, was a sausage-fest. Such was life. Sometimes, just briefly, he felt like a dodgy secondhand car dealer passing on shiny, overpriced but unreliable cars. The difference here was that the punters knew they were getting dross but were still happy to pay over the odds to pretend to look good. Rankings were like the emperor’s new clothes: nobody had the guts to point that the emperor was stark bollock naked for fear of making themselves look stupid. It was a mucky business – but where there’s muck, there’s brass.

Posted in Rankings | 1 Comment

Why universities aren’t responsible for students’ mental health.

It's good to listen

It’s good to listen…

Mental Health Issues 

More and more university students are suffering from poor mental health. One supposed reason for this is that young people nowadays are part of an over-sensitive, over-entitled ‘snowflake’ generation. This, though, is an unkind, unhelpful, and misleading narrative with no real evidence to support it. There is an increasing awareness and acceptance of mental health issues, and younger people may be more likely to seek help rather than ‘man up’ and try to ignore or suppress it. This is likely to raise the numbers of people identifying as unwell and seeking help, which is a positive, even if the numbers look worse.  

Beyond this, though, for ‘the youth of today’ the future is not very bright, particularly when compared with the outlook their parents and grandparents faced. Economies, globally, have been performing poorly for a decade, and the labour market promises fewer lifelong careers and more and more precarious jobs. Alongside rising costs of living and overinflated house prices, most young people today will not enjoy financial or career stability or be able to buy their own homes. In addition to this, the political situation in many countries is pretty fractious, with young people particularly feeling disenfranchised (not apathetic), along with the parallel, very serious concerns about the state of the environment.   

The Student View

For university students, the majority of whom are young, they have come from an education system which, in the UK at least, is becoming more and more pressurised. They leave school, where they have been drilled for years in how to memorise and pass tests, and come into a university learning environment which is very different, where the guidelines are looser and learners require more independence. Many – but certainly not all – will be living away from home among strangers for the first time, too, away from their support networks. Most will accumulating considerable debts to pay for their tuition fees and living costs, too; by the end of three years, English students will owe around £50,000. Research shows that this really worries them, which is not surprising. Adding this indebtedness to the poor economic and labour market conditions, and it’s a pretty bleak combination.  

Responsibility ‘and Educationalisation 

Coming back to my title, I admit that I’m playing with words here, but with good reason. ‘Responsible for’ has two interpretations – having created a situation, and having an obligation to do something about it. To illustrate, universities are obviously not to blame for much of the broader economic and political climate, but they are being asked to pick up some of the pieces. To be clear here, I’m not saying that universities don’t have a duty of care towards their students, I absolutely believe they do. What that the extent of that duty of care should be is open to debate: academics and other university staff should be supportive as and how they can, but they are not ‘in loco parentis’ (i.e. students’ parents).

What I’m implying here is that the responsibility for students’ mental health – the blame element, as it were – falls on those whose stewardship has led to this situation: policy-makers, more or less. Bankers caused the crash, but they were allowed to through lax policy, and austerity since then hasn’t helped. It seems that few people predicted the broader state of the world that we find ourselves in today, at least not in its entirety, but there appears to be little appetite to really solve it, either. Policies – in education as anywhere – often don’t address the problem, or if they do, only very weakly. Claiming that universities are responsible for – in the solving sense – student mental health, simply deflects the blame.  

This is an example of ‘educationalisation’, of stating that universities/schools should be fixing problems that the government isn’t – or won’t. This includes educational and career outcomes (strongly linked to income inequality), graduate salaries (linked to social background and hugely variable by subject area), and so on. That investment bankers start on around £50,000, and teaching salaries begin at £22,000, is an abomination of the system, not universities’ fault. When you connect this to the fact that all students pay the same rates in fees, regardless of what they study (and that society, the Exchequer, and employers gain from having graduates), the government’s argument that graduates are the main beneficiaries of a university degree falls apart very quickly. Fees make sense at first glance, and many policies do, but it was predicted in advance that the current fee system would cost more than the previous one, and this has played out. When you then the long-term debt and mental health implications to the mix…oh dear.   

You can take the same angle with so many policies. How about Free School Meals (FSM), free lunches ‘awarded’ the children of  parents who receive benefits and/or earn below a certain amount?  Does this address the situation that some people are known to be struggling to feed their children? Not really, it’s another sticking plaster next to a benefits system which clearly pays far too little. FSM only work during term time, recipients can feel stigmatised, and they are not claimed by a lot of parents for that and other reasons. You then join this on to the fact that a lot of people living in poverty are working, that rents and other living costs are rising, and in some areas – known as food deserts – there is no access to fresh fruit or vegetables for people who don’t have cars. Price rises or the absence of supermarkets in certain areas are the ‘market’ in action, but this is where the government has to step in. It needs to force employers to pay a living wage, for landlords not to charge extortionate rent, to pay for councils to be able to provide sufficient affordable housing, and to ensure that everyone can have decent levels of nutrition. 

Joined Up Thinking 

In essence, everything is joined to everything else, but our policies quite often are not. They’re local to the problem, and often don’t even solve that problem. Why is our policy-making so bad? Part of this must be because social issues are complicated – they can be ‘wicked problems’ – hard  to understand and constantly changing;  this means that they’re fiendishly difficult to solve. Sometimes a policy can be well-intentioned but have unexpected side-effects. By and large, though, experts in any given field will predict what may or may not work, and we can see many of the outcomes in advance. Issues with the affordability of fees were by and large predicted, and we’ve known about the problems with FSM for some time.  

Putting a policy in place is hard, it involves the agreement, alignment and effort of a great many people, and can include amassing positive public and media opinion. Getting government departments and other organisations to align must be tough, too. Maybe some of this poor policy is linked to the electoral cycle, in that politicians have to be seen to be doing enough in order to maximise the chances of being elected next time around. A counterintuitive policy which should work but won’t show immediate results has little attraction for someone who is worried about their seat in Parliament every few years. Some of it is ideological – the left sees state intervention and investment as the best way forward; the right sees the state as a waste of money, the market will sort it all out, generous benefits systems encourage fecklessness.  

All in, it means that we’re not solving many social issues. Education can do many things, but it can’t save the world by itself. There are ways of improving the situation greatly, but they need to be joined together, and it seems that those at the helm largely lack the will.  

Posted in Student Loans, Tuition Fees | Leave a comment

Lost in Space – the unsettlement of interdisciplinarity 

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Most people will focus on a single fruit, and maybe a few sections of that fruit. Sometimes it feels like I’m trying to think about the whole bowl!

 

I’ve been feeling increasingly rootless over the past few months, but in a weirdly good way. Well, mostly good. I’m bringing in loads of new ideas to my work, which is intellectually stimulating but also quite tricky as the scope of those ideas is enormous. Perhaps it’s all just too big, I don’t know, I’ll have to wait and see. The reason for this is that my research is heading in a new direction, or at least adding new directions to my existing ones. It’ll probably make more sense if I explain this…

Starting Point/s

Overall, I’m interested in universities, and particularly in how universities differ from each other, both within and between countries. My ‘home territory’ in terms of focus is how students’ experiences vary, and how this is often related to who they are and their previous experiences. I could spend the rest of my career in this ‘niche’, a lot of people will, and they’ll contribute really important work to it. Often they’ll look at a niche within a niche, such as class or gender, sexual orientation or race/ethnicity, or religion.

Such a long-term, ‘narrow’ focus is essential because any one of those dimensions is incredibly complex and nuanced; it’s is only through years of sustained examination that we really get to understand them more fully. Each of them also overlaps – intersects – with others, in that being a white, male, straight middle class student is different to being a black, male, straight, middle class one. The more you shuffle the combinations, the more varied it all gets, and people will often consider a few in combination. It’s fascinating and important work, as the further removed you are from the dominant group (white, male, posh), the rougher your ride will be – and it’s through no fault of your own. Making the system less exclusive is one of the most pressing social concerns we have.

New Direction/s

I’m still going to be looking at identity and universities, but I’m also adding some new bits to the mix. Anyone who’s studied/worked at more than one university will know that they contrast in thousands of slightly – or very – different ways. This comes from a combination of the organisation’s history, who works/studies there, who runs it, who used to work/study there/run it, where it’s located, how it’s built and laid out, and so on. To illustrate, how you see (or feel at) Cambridge will in part be related to its rich and traditional (or antediluvian and oppressive) culture, the wonderful and gifted (or annoying and entitled) people there, and its gorgeous and inspiring (or intimidating and excluding) architecture.

There’s research on all of these areas – more on some than others – but it’s currently not very joined together, often being limited to discussions within a single discipline. Such is the nature of academic research, as areas can have their own focii, language, and ways of doing things. This means that they can be a bit like oil and water at times. Which disciplines are involved – or ‘involvable’ in my research? Well, the world’s your oyster. In no particular order, there’s relevant work in Sociology, Geography, Philosophy, Anthropology, Politics, Management , Economics, Architecture, Urban Studies, Organisational Studies, Literature, and Art History. That’s in the first/closest circle. The second circle could involve Computer Studies, Accounting, Town Planning, Engineering, Law…and so on.

Risks and Rewards

What this means for me is that I’m able to – or am having to – read really widely. I’ve always tried to rummage a bit around the fringes, but there’s often little time for this. If you’re under pressure to teach certain materials and publish at a particular rate, there can be few gaps in between; you have to be strategic (i.e. confined) in terms of what you read. If it’s not directly related to your paper/topic, it either gets ignored or goes into that folder of ‘non-essential things I’d like to read’. I think most academics probably have one of these. Occasionally I go back into it and pick something up or fillet out and discard the odd thing, but if it was in paper form, the pile would comfortably be as tall as me.

From one angle, I’m absolutely loving this broadness, this enormous variety. As long as it’s ‘on topic’, I can include it, and this allows me to follow trails of references out of curiosity, burrowing down fascinating rabbit holes. As you might imagine I’m coming across an incredible diversity of authors and ideas. It’s partly confusing but mostly eye-opening and enriching. It’s great! From another angle, though, I’m a bit lost. How do I join all of this together? Should I? Can I?

There’s a worry here that I’ll be caught in an academic no-man’s land, a jack of all trades and master of none. I could present at a conference, or submit a paper, and be called out for not having read deeply enough in that particular concept or field. (As it is, the volume of material across my topic is far too big for anyone to take in.) In my scavenging across disciplines and literatures, am I on a path towards creating a Frankenstein’s monster that doesn’t quite fit together? Most academics are generous with their insights and support, giving credit for what you’re doing and offering constructive feedback on how to improve it. Others are less so, and they delight in highlighting your shortcomings; it makes them feel better about their own expertise and defends their position in that field. It’ll be a ride, that’s for certain…

Checking My Privilege

It’s really important to mention here that I’m in a very privileged position. I’m in a permanent post, in a field and department that welcomes interdisciplinary thinking, and where I’m new so I haven’t accumulated the full load of responsibilities yet. I also have external funding for the research project that forms the basis of all of this. It could be a very different story. This wide-ranging approach possibly lacks the tight focus for a PhD, and wouldn’t necessarily fit tidily within a bigger, coordinated post-doc project, either. Some disciplines are very picky about which journals you publish in, and this can limit the topics, or the research methods you can use, which can make life difficult for early career researchers who need to publish to get their careers off the ground.

In short, I’m fortunate to have this idea and opportunity at this precise moment in my career, and to be working in an area which allows eclecticism. Two years ago, it wouldn’t have worked as I didn’t have the time or space, and in two years from now I may not, either.

 

Posted in Early Career Academia | 1 Comment

The Reluctant Union-ist

Feeder.png

Some people would rather feed the birds than the the political process. 

Barry was absent-mindedly watching a pair of plump tits in the garden through his home office window. He’d recently refilled the bird feeders – it was nesting season – and the local avian population had been availing itself of the contents. So it should be.

He’d received a letter this morning from the union – all the bumph for a vote for a new General Secretary. It had come as a bit of a surprise, he’d had no idea there was an election pending. The voting form was on the corner of his desk, listing three candidates he’d never heard of. He picked it up and used it as to mark his place in the book he’d been reading. There was, of course, a danger that he’d never send it in, but then it probably wouldn’t make much difference anyway. The UCU, as all unions were, was hobbled by the 50% rule so even if there was a real firebrand leading the charge, it was virtually impossible to get that kind of turnout on any topic. Plus ca change and all that.

Barry was a union member, but not what you’d call an active one. He mostly saw it as an insurance policy in the unlikely event of an employment tribunal or something like that. His political inactivity was probably surprising given that he was a successful scholar in International Relations, and had cut his teeth in the early days (doing his DPhil and then writing a subsequent book) on the geopolitics of the Polish Solidarity movement. Looking at things on paper, in principle – theoretically – was one thing. It had been intellectually stimulating to slowly tease the threads out, of Communism, Catholicism, and the pure chance of political-planetary alignment and the social networks that wove it all together. The everyday practice of politics was entirely different: overly changeable, messy, petty factionalism; it was too difficult in real time to get a proper grasp of what was going on. There was so much noise, chatter, urgency. One needed time, slow scholarship, to really understand what was going on. Sadly, one couldn’t vote in hindsight, and that’s really what was required.

Last year’s strikes, ostensibly over pensions but also in practice about much that was wrong in higher education, had been a rare occasion where the turnout had been high enough to trigger action. There’d been all sorts of opaque skulduggery by the pensions provider, it was absolutely not on. He had gone on strike – in part because he was obliged to, his university had a majority of staff in the USS – but hadn’t taken part in the pickets. He lived a good hour away from the university, and the cut in salary on those strike days, alongside the cost of the commute into London, made it financially unattractive. The twins, fifteen now, and very into their sports, were trying to eat them out of house and home. They’d have had to cut down on something. Preferably not.

He had shown solidarity, of a sort. In addition to not going into the office, he’d ‘liked’ and ‘retweeted’ colleagues’ and prominent strikers’ pictures and statements. He wasn’t the most active of  Tweeters, in fact he realised that he’d  been on it for months. Maybe he did recognise one of the names on the ballot, vaguely, Grady, was it? Perhaps. Anyway. The strike days had fortuitously fallen on days he’d ordinarily have been teaching, which got him off the hook. He’d been able to use that time to finish off his latest book, as well as polish up a grant application, which had been successful. These, in combination, had combined to provide the tipping point for his promotion to professor last summer. There was an irony in there, somewhere, probably. He’d address this in due course, slowly, after the fact. Only way to really do it justice.

Posted in Teaching in HE | 1 Comment

The Multiple Shitnesses of the ECR Job Market

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Every Sunday mornings, for over a year – anything out there for me?

Over about 18 months, I looked into but didn’t apply for about 80 jobs, enquired about – but didn’t apply for – 20, applied for 15, was shortlisted for five, and got one. Whether I was shortlisted or not was difficult to predict., and some that I looked well-suited (or even slightly overqualified) for, I didn’t get a look-in. Others that I thought might be a step too far, I did get an interview. Of five where I was shortlisted, I genuinely wanted three, and was offered (and took) one of those. One is enough, right, but getting there was a real slog. From my experiences, and through discussions with colleagues, it’s clear that there are some real problems in the academic job market. Here’s a handful:

CV-building? How?

I’ve written about this before, but it can be difficult to know what you’re supposed to have on your CV to make you attractive for academic jobs. Some universities are good at providing information about this, some aren’t, and sometimes the only way to be well-informed is to either find out the hard way – by working out what you haven’t got when you look at job applications – or by getting help from someone who’s already done that. I’ve had a mixture of both, but you often find out when it’s too late, you’ve (nearly) got your doctorate and are looking for post-doc jobs. Added to this, there is increasing pressure on universities to get people to complete their doctorates in 3-4 years, which means that there’s very little time to do your research project and get experience in teaching, other projects, conference presentations, publications… If you’re already in a job that has no time or support for staff development or publishing, that really doesn’t help, either.

Bottleneck

There are a lot of PhDs being awarded every year, and it’s in universities’ interests to ‘produce’ more and more as it counts towards their ‘research environment’ rating, which in the UK that has a direct bearing on state research funding. (Doctoral students are also cheap labour on research projects). The downside is that the supply of doctoral holders vastly exceeds the number of post-doc places, either inside or outside academia. This is not a problem for employers, obviously, because it drives their costs down as they can underemploy overqualified people. Anecdotally, what you need on your CV to get your first academic job seems to be much more than it was a decade ago. The number of academic jobs is going up by 2% a year while doctoral degree numbers are rising at double that rate, on average. Not everyone wants to stay on universities, but it’s creating a squeeze for those that do, and for those that don’t, there’s a lack of support/information around accessing non-academic jobs.

Crap Jobs

A really hot topic at the moment is the increase in precarious academic jobs. Just as we’ve seen the emergence and increase of zero hours contracts in the private sector, the same thing is happening in higher ed, with a lot of highly-qualified ‘hourly-paid’ contracts, doing little bits of teaching here and there. The next step up from that is a part-time, limited term job, usually attached to a research contract that runs for a set period. About half of all academic jobs in the UK aren’t permanent. It’s far cheaper for universities to employ people as and when they need them, rather than have people on their payroll, soaking up their resources when there’s no research funding to support them. It can be hard on these precarious jobs to develop your career and CV unless your boss allows time for that – sometimes you only have time to do the job, and nothing else, not even publish. Some people have to do several of these at once, in different parts of the country; that travel and changing hats between jobs can be hard, and if you have a family, it’s brutal.

Round Pegs in Square Holes?

A lot of academic job adverts, while being specific to a field (like Education etc) are still quite vague in terms of exactly what specialist subjects and skills within that they’re looking for. A department’s main concern is not finding someone at all, so they make the application broader than they want in order to attract the maximum number of applicants. At least then if they don’t get a perfect match, they get someone close enough. You have to persuade your university that there’s a real need for a new position, and it takes time to recruit and for the person to move, at least a few months, by which point you might be desperate, particularly if someone has left and everyone else is carrying that person’s responsibilities in the interim. So the job spec is slightly vague, and loads of probably unsuitable people apply, shooting in the dark and wasting their time. Top tip: always contact the nominated person on the ad and ask for further details, I’ve saved myself a lot of wasted applications that way. Sometimes they say ‘just apply anyway’, again because they’re worried about not filling the post at all.

Time Applying

If you do find one that looks appropriate, academic job applications take bloody hours to fill in. You have to move nearly all of your CV across into an online (or sometimes paper) form and it’s a different system for every university, so you can’t send a CV in or transfer other applications over. Why can’t they all use the same one?!?! Then you have to write a 1-2 page personal statement explaining that you meet their criteria, providing evidence of exactly how – grants received, PhDs supervised, projects led, and so on. Even for similar jobs, the spec varies slightly, so you have to write an entirely new statement every time. You get better at it as you go along, there’s a knack to it, but it’s at least a few hours. If you bear in mind that a lot of those applications will go straight in the bin because someone in HR has an internal list that they check applications against, and then the shortlisting group has their criteria (much of which you can’t know about), then that’s thousands and thousands of hours wasted across the sector every year. Why don’t they have a short application for shortlisting and then a longer one for longlists? They’d save endless amounts of pain and time.

Emotional Rollercoaster

Not having a job, or being in one that’s coming to a close, or in one that you don’t like, is exhausting in itself. It gnaws at you, you get the jobs list every week, and get to the point where you’re compulsively applying for things that might be a bit tangential, but you never know, and you don’t score any of the goals you don’t shoot for, right? You then have the little glimmer of hope when you send it off – maybe this is the one. Of course it’s usually followed by the dull thump of an email in your inbox to say ‘you’ve not been shortlisted, we had a lot of highly qualified candidates etc etc’, but you don’t get feedback at this stage and therefore have no idea if you were slightly close or miles away.

When you get shortlisted, and called to interview, it’s super-exciting, and the presentation and interview occupies your thoughts for weeks. You run over it in your head, then put it together, amend it, and you wonder how many people have been shortlisted, and who they are, if they’re much better than you, all of that stuff. Then on the day, you do your thing, have the interview and hope. Sometimes you meet the other candidates, and often you know at least one of them – you talk to friends, and you’re all applying for the same things… Coming second on the day is no cigar, but at least at this stage you get feedback and you know if you’d have been appointable but someone else pipped you to it and how. But it takes a lot out of you, being so close and falling short. I got turned down for one job I really wanted and became pretty worried that I was becoming less and less employable for certain kinds of universities. All of this applying, waiting, hoping – it takes it out of you.

Overall, yuk

So, in short, job hunting in academia is a tough one. Not many jobs, not many good jobs,  difficulties in knowing what you need to be employable, and employers being too vague about what they really want. Hours and hours pissing in the wind with applications that don’t get read, very high rates of failure, and then being pipped at the post; the whole thing is demoralising. Solidarity and good luck to people out there still looking, and particularly to those of you who are more likely to be discriminated against in your applications than me. That’s just about everybody.

 

Posted in Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates | 3 Comments